Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County commissioners agreed Wednesday to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax that would fund both an expansion of the Douglas County Jail and a new behavioral health campus, despite calls from some residents to split the two projects into separate ballot questions.

The commission also agreed to put the question before voters with a mail-ballot election, which would conclude May 15. With the decision, county staff will begin preparing language for a bond question, which will come back before the commission at its Jan. 24 meeting.

If approved, the half-cent sales tax, which is estimated to raise $9.8 million annually, would fund $750,000 in annual debt payments for the behavioral health campus, $5.1 million in associated behavioral health service costs and $3 million in annual debt service for the jail expansion. It also would provide about $1 million of the estimated $6.1 million needed for added operational costs associated with the expansion.

In making the case for expansion, Undersheriff Gary Bunting said it was needed for the safety of corrections officers and the better treatment and rehabilitation of inmates.

“The main point is that these (corrections officers) are public safety personnel,” he said. “We as a community owe them the safest environment in which to work and the tools to do so effectively. We owe it to everyone involved to help persons in incarceration so when they are released back into the community, they are a better member of society.”

In comments before her vote, Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said the commission and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had made a successful effort to reduce the jail population in 2017 through the Behavioral Health Court, pretrial release program and postsentencing home-arrest. Those programs reduced the jail population by 100 inmates, but that wasn’t enough, she said.

Commissioner Mike Gaughan, in announcing his support for the half-cent question, said the two projects have been linked from the start. The problem of jail overcrowding was brought to commissioners’ attention more than three years ago, he said, and nothing had changed despite the programs Derusseau mentioned. At the same, he said, the county learned of concerns of inmates with mental illness at the jail, which led to planning for the behavioral health campus.

And former County Commissioner Jim Flory, who left the commission a year ago, agreed during the meeting’s public comment period that commissioners were right to place the two projects on the same ballot question because they both addressed the county’s health, safety and welfare.

Members of the Lawrence faith-based activist group Justice Matters, however, urged commissioners to split the projects into two ballot questions. They voiced their support for the behavioral health initiatives and their opposition to expanding the jail.

Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer, said the commission would “insult” county voters if it didn’t let them decide the merits of each project individually. He said the county should request more flexibility from the Kansas Legislature to split the projects on the ballot. Commissioners had previously said splitting the sales tax question up was impossible due to the language of the special state law authorizing the referendum.

Barbara Palmer, also a Justice Matters member, said the county had not done enough to find alternatives to incarceration. She also argued the behavioral health initiatives would greatly reduce arrests and the need for additional beds.

But Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said expanding the jail was not optional.

“The County Commission doesn’t think that is an option,” she said. “The question is how to fund the jail expansion. My sense is this community needs a larger jail and it also wants desperately increased mental health and substance abuse systems. We can do both of those things almost entirely on a half-a-penny sales tax.”